Opinion: I Hope Asynchronous Classes Stay, and Other Thoughts for Post-Pandemic University Schedules
I entered VCU during the pandemic, during a time when online synchronous classes were the bane of most students’ (and professors’) existence and face-to-face classes were few and far between. At this point, the highlight of my schedule has been the Fall 2021 Honors section of Professor Shiel’s reading- and discussion-based ENGL 370: Medicine in Literature class, conducted in a cozy room on the fourth floor of Hibbs Hall. By the end of the semester, we knew each other well and were discussing each other’s writings. For most of us, it was the most human interaction in a class in a long time, and it was a welcome change, despite the masks. Maybe that was why we were so close.
After two semesters of a mix of face-to-face, online synchronous, and asynchronous classes, here are my thoughts:
A Virtual Option for Large Lecture Halls
In Fall 2021, I was in face-to-face CHEM 102 and a physics lab. For the former, I didn’t understand the necessity of being in a giant lecture hall, especially since my PHYS 207 lecture filled many of the same functions in a virtual – not to mention recordable – format, complete with hand-drawn notes and Top Hat questions. (The physics lecture also had none of the coughing students or having to commute or just walk to 8 AM recitations, both major benefits of the virtual format.) Somewhat perplexingly, I had to take CHEZ 102 asynchronously, gaining none of the experience I would have appreciated from the lab. The questions could be done with little attention to the rest of the material, which might be due to my AP Chemistry class actually having labs pre-pandemic, and I never had to think about it again. Still, my point? Face-to-face lectures and asynchronous labs are clearly reversed priorities.
This semester, my 8 AM CHEZ 301 lectures, which were supposed to be face-to-face, were simultaneously held on Zoom. This change, which was merciful for all the students waking up no earlier than 7:55 (which is still early in my book), is something I hope sticks around for CHEZ 302 in the fall. In fact, I hope this change is something which other professors take note of.
Once there are a hundred students in a lecture hall, half of whom are taking notes on a computer, there’s little student-professor interaction. Some students don’t even show up. When masks become optional in classrooms, as vaccines already have, some students might be uncomfortable with being around their unmasked peers in a crowded lecture hall.
Technology issues notwithstanding, why not let those students attend from their dorm, home, or apartment if they so choose? Some might even attend the Zoom lecture who weren’t going to attend face-to-face originally. Professors can continue to teach face-to-face and don’t need dedicated online synchronous sections which may be more difficult to teacher. They might even record the lectures for those who unable to attend and post the recordings, especially those professors already allow students two share audio recordings or who used to share their Zoom lecture. The students who are going to come to class and ask questions will still come to class and ask questions, and they’ll have fewer distractions from other students in the background. Exam attendance in-person can still be mandatory, as they are in my CHEZ 301 class.
Zoom Hinders Group Discussion
In smaller classes, especially discussion-based classes, mandatory Zoom classes can be a nightmare of muting, unmuting, and lagging internet. I’ve had several days of my HONR 250: Expository Writing class canceled due to internet outages, and within the class there are sometimes long breaks in conversation, more than I ever experienced in my Medicine in Literature class. Small breakout rooms are often quiet and depending on where students are forced to attend from, such as the library or hallways in various buildings, some conversation tends to be in the chat.
People might think that the sciences need to be in person more than the humanities, but that’s not always the case. Small classes in many disciplines could benefit from being face-to-face to facilitate important discussions and other activities. However, I’m not sure how many other students agree with me on this. Maybe the allure of having your camera off and never speaking if given the option in the future will prevail.
Asynchronous Options for Lectures Win
Finding out that there are still asynchronous lectures for some important, required courses in the fall made my day when course selection opened. Struggling to assemble a schedule and seeing a little red “Time Conflict!” notification beside important classes which happen to overlap with more important priorities is never fun, so having the option to avoid that altogether saves time, energy, and student stress. Especially for less complex, less interactive classes, there may not be a true need to have synchronous lectures. Learning and retaining the material can be done just as well in independently or small study groups on one’s own schedule, especially if office hours still exist.
Of course, I’m not advocating doing away with said synchronous lectures. For some classes, not to mention many students’ learning styles, face-to-face or even online synchronous lectures may be entirely necessary. It’s just that an asynchronous option for busy students, especially those who work or those who take classes with fewer course sections to choose from, might be helpful.
I don’t actually know what scheduling was like pre-pandemic. I wasn’t there for it. I just know that it was a bit of a mess coming to VCU in the middle of a pandemic and seeing how, coming out of waves of dangerous surges, VCU is trying to adapt to the new COVID reality. In my mind, that means using what we’ve learned to be more accommodating to students, giving them more options to allow them to thrive. It means professors supplementing their teaching with recorded Zoom lectures, especially when students need additional help, or posting lectures when they’re sick or have scheduling conflicts. It means not forcing students to lose sleep to be in the building at 8 AM week after week, especially when there’s no hands-on component. It means embracing technology without making professors and students alike more burnt out than they already are. It doesn’t mean trying to return to the status quo when there are better options now, and I’m glad to see any sign that VCU is taking those better options and working with them.